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J Neuroendocrinol. 2009 Mar;21(4):415-20. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2826.2009.01843.x.

Examining the intersection of sex and stress in modelling neuropsychiatric disorders.

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  • 1Department of Animal Biology, School of Veterinary Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA 19104, USA.


Sex-biased neuropsychiatric disorders, including major depressive disorder and schizophrenia, are the major cause of disability in the developed world. Elevated stress sensitivity has been proposed as a key underlying factor in disease onset. Sex differences in stress sensitivity are associated with corticotrophin-releasing factor (CRF) and serotonin neurotransmission, which are important central regulators of mood and coping responses. To elucidate the underlying neurobiology of stress-related disease predisposition, it is critical to develop appropriate animal models of stress pathway dysregulation. Furthermore, the inclusion of sex difference comparisons in stress responsive behaviours, physiology and central stress pathway maturation in these models is essential. Recent studies by our laboratory and others have begun to investigate the intersection of stress and sex where the development of mouse models of stress pathway dysregulation via prenatal stress experience or early-life manipulations has provided insight into points of developmental vulnerability. In addition, examination of the maturation of these pathways, including the functional importance of the organisational and activational effects of gonadal hormones on stress responsivity, is essential for determination of when sex differences in stress sensitivity may begin. In such studies, we have detected distinct sex differences in stress coping strategies where activational effects of testosterone produced females that displayed male-like strategies in tests of passive coping, but were similar to females in tests of active coping. In a second model of elevated stress sensitivity, male mice experiencing prenatal stress early in gestation showed feminised physiological and behavioural stress responses, and were highly sensitive to a low dose of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. Analyses of expression and epigenetic patterns revealed changes in CRF and glucocorticoid receptor genes in these mice. Mechanistically, stress early in pregnancy produced a significant sex-dependent effect on placental gene expression that was supportive of altered foetal transport of key growth factors and nutrients. These mouse models examining alterations and hormonal effects on development of stress pathways provide necessary insight into how specific stress responses can be reprogrammed early in development resulting in sex differences in stress sensitivity and neuropsychiatric disease vulnerability.

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